September 5, 2020

A Moment in History with the Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern Resident Killer Whales Swim into the Salish Sea

Olivia | M/V Sea Lion | September 5th, 2020 | 13:30

Leaving Friday Harbor and setting out south to find whales, we had no idea we would be part of such a unique moment in history. We started the long trek through the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Mount Baker peering down at us and Harbor Porpoise swimming in every direction we looked. Just shy of two hours later [so proud of our patient passengers!] we came across the south western corner of the United States border when we started seeing multiple black dorsal fins of killer whales. These were not just any killer whales though; these were the critically endangered [and rarely seen in recent history] Southern Resident Killer Whales. It is an absolute delight to see Southern Residents in any number, but the craziest part was that there were more than 30 in the area, and more on their way. We had J Pod as well as L and K Pod all socializing together.

This ecotype of killer whale is famously known for giving the San Juan Island westside the reputation of having the greatest chances of seeing orca offshore, since historically, they were in our waters almost daily foraging on salmon [hence the name “resident”]. With a heavy decline in Chinook Salmon specifically, the Southern Resident Killer Whales began to starve and plummet in numbers, while also traveling way out of their historical distribution trying to find food. This lack of food has caused a snowball of effects such as a high infant mortality rate. Most recently, this ecotype became famous with the news of J35 carrying around her deceased calf for 17 days in our waters a couple years ago. This made global headlines, as I heard about this while living in New Zealand. It was devastating and heartbreaking, but also brought awareness to their conservation and how our negative human actions on habitats and wildlife spread like wildfire impacting more than just one species. The uplifting news was that in July when J Pod visited our waters, researchers discovered that she was once again pregnant- YAY!

We dive into this topic on all our wildlife trips to spread awareness on the importance of a healthy ecosystem, but most strongly educate this topic on the rare moments we are blessed to see this ecotype specifically. There is nothing like viewing them in the flesh, listen and watching them breath, realizing these behaviors would be happening with or without us watching; that there is no one telling them what to do or where to be, and ultimately forming a connection. Sir David Attenborough once said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” This insight touches on the key threat to our conservation efforts on the natural world. Now don’t be alarmed, we are not just bombarding folks with dreadful news the entire time, we also educate heavily on what are thought to be the most intelligent species in the entire world, as well as taking a lot of conscious moments to simply watch and take it in- even better on these GORGEOUS days!

As we were starting to depart, the craziest thing happened. We saw a newborn calf- less than 24 hours old, still flaunting a squished dorsal fin and fetal folds from being in the womb. Fast forward, this was none other than J35’s brand new calf! WHAT!? This put the entire trip into perspective. We know that the Southern Resident Killer Whales are often viewed breaching, lobtailing, cartwheeling, rolling, spy hopping, and pectoral slapping; however, they were celebrating! We watched as J Pod came into our waters the day before; can we assume J35 returned to give birth in her historical home territory? Is that why L and K Pod reunited here to form a super pod- to celebrate the successful birth of another Southern Resident Killer Whale!? Lastly, how did they KNOW when this ecotype does not always travel as a super pod? So many questions flooded our minds and boggling them as well, as we realized the moment in history we were involved in. SO many tears were shed within the Pacific Whale Watch Association and for whale enthusiasts alike. This is resilience.

Welcome to the world, J57- we are rooting for your safety and survival. Cheers to a current count of 73 Southern Resident Killer Whales!

I am so proud of our passengers for being such troopers on this long haul to see killer whales, but we were fortunate enough to provide them with an opportunity of a lifetime in seeing not only our beloved Killer Whale that made the islands famous, but currently one of the rarest ecotypes. We thought it was worth it! And not to mention- a MOMENT in history that will never be forgotten. How special and unique for all of us to be there when that happened and when this new calf was first discovered. Now while this was exciting to add one more whale to the mix, infant mortality is still high with such a lack of food. We need to celebrate these moments, while not losing sight of the fight to save them.

Remember- No Fish, No Blackfish.